Gearing Up, Module by Module When the American Dental Association went looking for a new management system, what it wanted was the ability to share information among all three levels of the organization--local, state, and national. What it is getting from association management software vendor MEI is a custom system called TAMS (Tripartite Association Management Systems) that works on the concept of what MEI Chairman Peter W. Kauffman calls "data sync." Written in Visual Basic, TAMS most closely resembles a wide-area net that provides access to a central database. Users can access the database either through their Internet service provider or by using a direct dial-up connection.

Thus, a staff member at a local society can, for example, transmit information to the state or national office. Information sent directly to the national office can be transmitted to a state office. All three levels can exchange up-to-the-minute information.

What does it mean for the ADA? Well, up until a few months ago, ADA staff had to yell for their programmer just to generate a report about the registration pattern for their annual meeting (with 40,000 attendees, and more than 150,000 square feet of exhibit space, it is the thirteenth-largest medical conference and trade show in the U.S.). When they recorded payments for exhibit booth sales, they had to key in the entries twice, into the exhibitor and accounting systems.

But all that is changing this spring, when members will register for the ADA's 1999 annual meeting by faxing in their registration forms, which will be scanned automatically into the ADA's database. If there is missing information, the registration form will be sorted into a error field for a staff member to handle. With that single exception, forms go from fax to scanner to system without ever being touched.

And that's just the beginning: Once in the system, the information on, say, a dentist's new address, is available immediately to every level of ADA organization, down to the local level. But each group is independent. Why would they want to clutter their systems with all the information in another society's database? And why would they share proprietary information, such as exhibitors and speakers lists? They won't have to. The software package allows each group to choose which information it shares.

Merging Meetings and Accounting When completed, the meeting and exhibit modules will link directly to the accounting database, overcoming one of the most serious flaws of the old system. People no longer will do double the work, says James H. Sweeney, ADA's group associate executive director, business, technical, and meetings services. "When an individual is registered, the money is entered in the right places in the general ledger."

The system will also handle the other basics, such as printing tickets and badges, and designing meeting room layouts. A separate speakers database will help ADA staff select presenters for an upcoming meeting by pulling a list of all the presenters who spoke at past meetings by topic. The ADA currently outsources housing, but if that changes, there is also an accommodations module available.

The new system will not only save oodles of time and money, but will create marketing opportunities, say Sweeney and Susan Katz, assistant executive director, conference and meeting services, ADA. By searching back a couple of years and identifying which members took what courses, "we will be able to [target] specific mailings to those people who have taken a class in that particular area before," says Katz.

ADA staff will be able to generate reports that will show, week by week, the pattern of meeting registration. By comparing that information to promotion schedules, "we will be able to use our financial resources better," says Sweeney. "Why begin to market something a year out, if you don't really get any response until four months out?"

Meeting the Future The American Dental Association didn't just turn its new software ideas over to MEI Software Systems Inc. and sit back and wait. Staff members attended technology meetings to keep updated on the latest advances. Here are conferences that can help you determine your software future:

METCON '99 (Meetings and Exhibition Technology Conference), cosponsored by the American Society of Association Executives and the Professional Convention Management Association, April 29 to May 1, Baltimore Convention Center. For more information, call ASAE at (202) 626-2754.

PCMA's 1999 Software Summit October 8 to 10, Sheraton Grande Torrey Pines, La Jolla, Calif. For information, call PCMA at (205) 823-7262.

ASAE M&T 1999 Management and Technology Conferences) December 5 to 7, Indiana Convention Center, Indianapolis. For information, call (202) 371-0940.

The Thirteenth- Largest Medical Trade Show Founded in 1859 by a group of 26 dentists meeting in Niagara Falls, NY, the ADA now has more than 141,000 members, more than 400 employees, and is the oldest and largest dental association in the world. The ADA's annual conference and trade show is now the 13th largest medical trade show in the country, measured by net square feet of exhibit space, as shown in the rankings on page 36. The 1998 meeting and exhibition attracts between 45,000 and 55,000 delegates and 850 exhibiting companies.

Fun Fact: The ADA has some history in innovative use of technology. Among other things, it was the first nonprofit health agency ever to produce a color television public service announcement, back in 1964.